LONDON — The British Royal Air Force’s fleet of Sentinel battlefield and ground surveillance jets are officially heading for the scrapyard after the Ministry of Defence released a notice Dec. 22 seeking a company to break up the aircraft for spares.
The Defence Equipment Sales Authority, the arm of the MoD responsible for disposing of surplus equipment, said it was looking for companies interested in stripping five Sentinel R1 aircraft and two Sentry E-3D airborne early warning aircraft for spares and dismantling what remains.
The five Sentinel aircraft , a variant of the Bombardier Global Express business jet, were built at a cost of nearly £1 billion (U.S. $1.3 billion), with Raytheon UK leading the extensive modification of the aircraft.
The work to scrap the aircraft will be conducted at RAF Waddington – the service’s hub for all things related to intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) – and other sites around the U.K.
The notice said there is a significant number of associated inventory spares and ground support equipment available with the Sentinel.
The time scale for the work is not known, but the battlefield-surveillance aircraft is scheduled to go out of service early next year having earned plaudits wherever it served following its first operational sortie over Afghanistan in 2008.
The aircraft’s synthetic aperture radar and ground moving target indicator have provided vital intelligence in places like Libya, Mali, Afghanistan, and most recently against Islamic State over Syria and Iraq.
The break-up notice brings to a close a 10-year squabble in the MoD to stop the premature curtailment of Sentinel operations.
As early as the 2010 strategic defense and security review (SDSR) the MoD sought to axe the capability, only to temporarily reprieve the jet five years later when the next review appeared in 2015.
The requirement for an expensive update of key systems proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Sentinel, though.
Howard Wheeldon, a consultant at Wheeldon Strategic Advisory, said the military should have found the cash for the modernization of the jet.
“That Sentinel required capability upgrading should not have been the reason for its premature withdrawal. ISTAR remains one, if not the most important, element of air power capability and taking a [capability] gap is unacceptable,” he said.
“The decision to scrap Sentinel capability is not only one of the worst that emerged out of SDSR 2015 but it is also the one that I believe the U.K. will most likely come to regret. The lack of such important capability, and with no imminent replacement in prospect, is dangerous and ill advised,” Wheeldon said.
The British are investing in new ISTAR capability like the Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the Wedgetail airborne command and control platform, and the Protector long-endurance unmanned aircraft, but none of them are direct replacements for Sentinel capability.
“Britain’s reluctance to invest in Sentry capability over the past two decades typifies MoD failure in this sector. For NATO, which has become used to the U.K. being unable to meet its AWACS aircraft commitments for several years, the arrival of Wedgetail into the RAF fleet in a couple of years’ time cannot come a moment too soon,” said Wheeldon.